In September, Eric Naierman boarded a plane in South Florida and headed to Denver, planning to expand his collection of video games. The transaction added nearly 40 titles to his assortment of classic titles — and cost him more than $1 million.
Given the number of “black box,” “sticker-sealed” games — hobby classifications that denote an item’s release date and condition before they’re assessed by an independent grader — in Naierman’s possession, some experts consider it to be one of the foremost collections in the world, both in terms of overall value and rarity.
With the additions from Denver, Naierman and a small group of partners called the Video Game Club obtained sticker-sealed, black-box copies of Nintendo Entertainment System games “Mario Bros.” arcade edition (1986), the two known copies of “Golf” (1985), the only known copy of “Balloon Fight” (1986) and the only known copy of “Gumshoe” (1986).
“These are some of the holy grails and cream of the crop in terms of having this historic value,” said Deniz Kahn, president and chief executive of Wata Games, which specializes in grading vintage video games and evaluated the items Naierman obtained.
The purchase from three collectors, who spent 52 combined years amassing the items, is a watershed moment for the hobby, experts say, both in terms of the number of games exchanged and the price point at which Naierman purchased them.
The previous high-water mark for a single game sale was a first-edition 1985 “Super Mario Bros.” that sold for $100,150. Several of the games in Naierman’s purchase could fetch similar prices at auction.
“It’s a classic case of supply and demand,” said Valarie McLeckie, the video game consignment director at Heritage Auctions. “Demand is increasing. More people are becoming interested, and these games are not easy to find in this condition. That’s what’s driving the market growth at this point. And people get competitive.”
As the video game collecting industry grew during the late 2000s, hobbyists gravitated toward the games with which they grew up. In video gaming’s short history, those were also some of the first console games on the market. Collectors established expertise on titles’ histories based on informal research and connections to other hobbyists, who took informal surveys of which games were available.
When third-party grading services entered the hobby, collectors finally had an objective measure of one game’s value vs. another’s, similar to the system that had been in place for years in baseball card and comic book collecting. All of a sudden, hobbyists could quantify their nostalgia with a dollar sign.
“It comes in waves, but the waves build up on each other,” said John Hancock, a longtime Seattle-based collector. “Fifteen to 20 years after a console comes out, the people who grew up on it get their first real jobs, have a little bit of disposable income and decide to start collecting. We’re already seeing the start of the PlayStation 2 and Wii wave.”
It has even given rise to a niche industry of “retro-gamers," who record themselves playing vintage games on sites such as Twitch and YouTube.
“It’s only natural, I suppose, but I just play the games that matter to me,” said Jason Lindsey, who plays under the name “MetalJesusRocks.”
Naierman began collecting games after growing disillusioned with baseball card collecting. It took far too much money, he said, to buy a single card, and he was looking to form a collection that could rank as one of the best in the world.
He pivoted to video games, realizing the titles he and friends grew up playing were now considered top-notch collector’s items, if found in the right condition.
But increasingly, experts say they’ve seen a movement away from collecting based on nostalgia and toward a view of collecting games as commodities while the market for rare games heats up. In years past, the hobby was dominated by aging gamers. Entering the hobby now are the same sort of serious collectors who consider coins, baseball cards, comic books and works of art as part of their investment portfolios.
“The hobby has transformed from being this relic of nostalgia,” Kahn said. "It’s not so much about that anymore. It’s moved to a real appreciation of the art and historic value of these games. People aren’t just buying them to look at it and remember playing that game. They’re buying them to commemorate the history and the impact they had on pop culture.
“That’s the same thing that happened with comic books. People had them, and they were something that sat in the attic and collected dust. But in the ’90s, people realized they were works of art and pieces of history. There’s a new criteria with that transition of what makes something valuable. It’s still too soon to be conclusive, but the tide has risen.”
It also has sent longtime gaming aficionados on the hunt for new collectibles. One of the sellers from Naierman’s deal is liquidating some of his collection, once considered to be among the world’s best, to track down original video game cover artwork. For early games, publishers would commission artists to paint the cover by hand, then take a photograph of it and print it onto boxes. Some of those paintings still exist, and as collectors snap them up, another market has emerged for historic video game paraphernalia. That, experts say, is further inflating the price of collectible games.
“Judging from everything I’ve seen in collecting over the years, there’s no reason that this shouldn’t develop into a hobby like baseball cards or comic books,” Naierman said. “I mean, comic books, you tell me what they have that a video game doesn’t. They have the box art. They have the same nostalgia. If comic books can sell for $1 million, there’s no reason a video game shouldn’t be able to do the same.”
Freelance writer Steven C. Wright contributed to this report.